tequila sovereign

From Patrick Wolfe

Sorry to discover your blog only now when my comments will probably come far too late for anyone to see, but hey – at least writing to you might help me get my thoughts in order.

Your post-UCLA comments are spot on. What’s specific about settler colonialism? That seems to me to be THE question – if there’s nothing specific and distinctive about settler colonialism, then there’s no justification for adding to our already-extensive vocabulary of colonial oppression. But the motivation for the concept (if that’s what it is) is more than a matter of scholarly categories. For me at least, it’s deeply political. I make this personal because, as you also rightly point out, there’s no consensus as to what settler colonialism means. My version of it’s different from that offered by, say, Veracini and Cavanagh, whom you quote, and different again from what might be called the classic versions of people such as Donald Denoon, Nira Yuval-Davis, David Prochaska and others, most of whom just assume that settler colonialism refers to colonies that have European settlers in them. So what follows is strictly my own view of things.

As you know, I view settler colonialism as governed by a logic of elimination. It can be defined as the attempt to remove Native societies from their land and replace them with settler ones. This doesn’t mean that every last Native has to die (though, God knows, enough millions of them have done so). What’s to be eliminated is Native societies, as autonomous polities originating independently of the settler social contract, rather than necessarily individual human beings. If the human beings can be reclassified on an individual basis so that the fragment of Native society that they represent effectively ceases to present an independent alternative to the settler social monopoly, then all well and good. This is why Colonel Richard Pratt’s famous phrase ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man’ is so revealing. You could hardly express the eliminatory ambition of assimilationist policies more concisely. As I’ve also argued – though admittedly this opens the analysis up more complicatedly – settlers also seek to assimilate Native institutions to the settler civic environment, as in the case of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. That’s another way of seeking to eliminate Native polities’ independently-(which is to say, sovereignly-)constituted sources of legitimacy. For now, though, I want to stress that the logic of elimination doesn’t stop at the frontier. True, outright homicide may give way to less controversial, strategically depoliticized modes of elimination – notably removal, confinement, assimilation, blood quanta, etc – but the elimination continues beyond the establishment of settler society, ideally in ways that don’t too blatantly disrupt the settler rule of law (though the respective life-expectancy rates generally continue to give the game away).

So what’s specific about this? Or even, as Cheryl Harris asked me at UCLA, why not just call it imperialism? My answer is that, within the imperialist social formation, the settler-colonial relation of invasion is as specific as the relation of slavery, which often accompanies it, but that it hasn’t had the same level of recognition as the relation of slavery and this defect should be corrected. This is one of the reasons why it’s crucial to recognize the uninterrupted operation of the logic of elimination after the frontier, including into the present. Slavery was technically abolished a century and a half ago. Not so the attempt to eliminate the Native alternative. The impression you get from many histories is the precise reverse – they have slavery living on as a kind of half-life in the present (as in important senses it obviously does) while Indian dispossession figures as a one-off thing of the past (which it categorically is not).  Against this kind of background, it’s no wonder that confusion has arisen as to why Indian rights can look so different to African American rights. Add to this the confusion of color – as Nandita Sharma wanted us to do at UCLA – and the profound historical differences distinguishing the different historical relationships of oppression into which Euroamerican colonisers have respectively sought to co-opt Indians and Black people get occluded in a multiculturalist fog. In addition to avoiding scholarly category errors, therefore, recognizing the specificity of the ongoing settler-colonial logic of elimination governing the relation of invasion into which settler societies continue to seek to co-opt Native peoples helps us to clarify historical obstacles that can get in the way of organizing anticolonial solidarities. One of the fundamental works of race is to divide and rule. Recognizing the different historical relationships of inequality that together went into the making of the Euroamerican settler social formation is a work of political solidarity.

I’ve addressed some of this in a piece that’s due to appear in a couple of months in a collection of essays edited by Fiona Bateman and Lionel Pilkington called ‘Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture’. A relevant bit  (which, ahem, yes, may sound somewhat familiar if you were at UCLA) runs as follows:

‘Why, then, when it is clear that settler colonialism in countries such as the United States and Australia is but one component of an all- encompassing global process, should we insist on categorically distinguishing the settler variant from other kinds of colonialism? What is the justification for a seemingly abstract comparative typology when the types only find empirical realization as so many nodes in a transnational network? The principal justification – only it is much more than a justification – is that the global perspective suppresses the Natives’ points of view.

Epistemologically at least, Archimedes was an imperialist. The global system is experienced differentially. From an Indigenous point of view, the issue of whether the arrival of particular intruders is voluntary or coerced does not affect these intruders’ standing as rivals for a Native people’s space and subsistence resources. In North America, enslaved Africans participated in Indian dispossession. Correspondingly, many Indians not only owned but bought and sold Black slaves. Indeed, Stand Watie, one of the leaders of the Cherokee treaty faction at the time of the Trail of Tears, was a slaveholder who went on to become the last Confederate general to surrender in the Civil War (Strickland and Strickland 1991, p. 136). In a Manichean moral universe, the empirical anomaly of good guys behaving like bad guys is hard to accommodate, confounding the liberal shibboleth of subaltern agency. For the liberal conscience, Black invaders and Indian slaveowners can represent altogether too much agency. The discomfort arises, of course, from the assumption that the enslaved and the banished – James Madison’s ‘the black race within our bosom’ and ‘the red on our borders’ – should naturally be companions in more than misfortune. The surprise occasioned by tensions between Blacks and Indians is an artefact of a liberal universalism that takes for granted a pastiche of difference – colours, races, minorities, ethnicities – on a multicultural canvas that levels the varied histories that produced these differences in the first place. How, for instance, can universalism deal with the predicament of so-called Red-Black people, who, by virtue of the one-drop rule (pace Jack Forbes), have no demographic existence? Red-Black people’s predicament is above all historical. Their social non- existence follows from the primacy of the one-drop rule, which, in classifying them Black, simultaneously eliminates them as anything else. To classify them as White may have furthered the elimination of Natives but it would have violated the one-drop rule. Classifying them as Black simultaneously furthered both Native elimination and the one-drop rule. As Ira Berlin noted of eighteenth-century Chesapeake slave- owners who found themselves barred from owning non-Black slaves, a ready solution lay in reclassifying the Indian ones Black (Berlin 1988, p. 145). Two centuries later, under the 1934 New Deal Indian Reorganization Act, which eased blood-quantum restrictions so long as Indians were safely on the reservation, the same logic caused people to change colour as they passed through the reservation gate (US Senate 1934, p. 264).

The bizarre formula that makes chameleons of Indians is the obverse of a rule that allows African Americans to be any colour they want so long as it’s Black. In combination, as we have seen, these chromatic antinomies reconstitute the twin bases of the colonial rule of private property on which Euroamerican society was founded, reinscribing the Atlantic Triangle in the era of multiculturalism. With race understood as a bearer of histories, the differences that it signifies require to be asserted rather than elided under homogenizing rubrics such as colour, otherness or, for that matter, subalternity. On this basis, it is not surprising that settler colonized Indigenous people should view ‘post’colonialism with suspicion. Moreover, the distinction on which they insist, the distinction between their histories and those of peoples historically co-opted into different colonial relationships, is simultaneously both comparative and transnational’ (end of excerpt).

This was the basis on which, at UCLA, in relation to Robin Kelley’s comments, I argued that anti-imperial solidarities should be organized around the recognition of historical differences.

Lastly – and crucially – I assume it’s understood throughout that what I’m attempting to analyze is NOT a fait accompli. Lest there be any mistake on this point, I’m careful to use words like ‘seek’ and ‘attempt’ when I spell out the settler logic of elimination. Natives have always devised and will continue to devise modes of resistance and ways around settler discourse that frustrate it and prevent it from usurping their right to determine their collective identities and ways of doing things.  All the same, there is a power imbalance (genocide has its consequences) and settler discourse continues to wreak havoc, so, as a contribution offered to Native resistance and anticolonial, antiracist solidarities, we can try to develop a clear-sighted understanding of the nature of settler colonialism – of its background, its effects and, most of all, of the limitations and contradictions of settler discourse that can be turned against themselves for liberatory ends.

I hope this helps – so far as my particular perspective goes, at any rate.

Very good wishes,


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